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Affixation is one of the most productive ways of word building throughout the history of
English. The main function of affixation in Modern English is to form one part of speech from
another; the secondary function is to change the lexical meaning of the same part of speech.
The process of affixation consists in coining a new word by adding an affix or several affixes
to some root morpheme. The role of the affix in this procedure is very important and therefore it
is necessary to consider certain facts about the main types of affixes. Affixation is one of the
most productive ways of word-building throughout the history of English. Affixation is divided
into suffixation and prefixation.
The present paper is devoted to the study of polysemy, homonymy and synonymy of English
affixes. As is known, language is never stable: sounds, constructions, grammatical elements,
word-forms and word-meanings are all exposed to alteration. Derivational affixes are no
exception in this respect, they also undergo semantic change. Consequently many commonly
used derivational affixes are polysemantic in Modern English. The various changes that the
English language has undergone in the course of time have led to chance coincidence in form of
two or more derivational affixes. As a consequence, and this is characteristic of Modern
English, many homonymic derivational affixes can be found among those forming both
different parts of speech and different semantic groupings within the same part of speech.
Borrowed affixes, especially of Romance origin are numerous in the English vocabulary. It
would be wrong, though, to suppose that affixes are borrowed in the same way and for the same
reasons as words. An affix of foreign origin can be regarded as borrowed only after it has begun
an independent and active life in the recipient language, that is, is taking part in the word-
making processes of that language. This can only occur when the total of words with this affix
is so great in the recipient language as to affect the native speakers' subconscious to the extent
that they no longer realise its foreign flavour and accept it as their own. Under certain
circumstances some of them came to overlap semantically to a certain extent both with one
another and with the native affixes.


A f f i x a t i o n is generally defined as the formation of words by adding derivational

affixes to different types of bases. Derived words formed by affixation may be the result of one
or several applications of word-formation rule and thus the stems of words making up a word-
cluster enter into derivational relations of different degrees. The zero degree of derivation is
ascribed to simple words, i.e. words whose stem is homonymous with a word-form and often
with a root-morpheme, e.g. atom, haste, devote, anxious, horror, etc. Derived words whose
bases are built on simple stems and thus are formed by the application of one derivational affix
are described as having the first degree of derivation, e.g. atomic, hasty, devotion, etc. Derived
words formed by two consecutive stages of coining possess the second degree of derivation,
etc., e.g. atomical, hastily, devotional, etc.
In conformity with the division of derivational affixes into suffixes and prefixes affixation is
subdivided into suffixation and prefixation. Distinction is naturally made between prefixal and
suffixal derivatives according to the last stage of derivation, which determines the nature of the
ICs of the pattern that signals the relationship of the derived word with its motivating source
unit, cf. unjust (un-+just), justify, (just++ -ify), arrangement (arrange + -ment), non-
smoker (non- + smoker). Words like reappearance, unreasonable, denationalise, are often
qualified as prefixal-suffixal derivatives. The reader should clearly realise that this qualification
is relevant only in terms of the constituent morphemes such words are made up of, i.e. from the
angle of morphemic analysis. From the point of view of derivational analysis such words are
mostly either suffixal or prefixal derivatives, e.g. sub-atomic = sub- + (atom + + -ic),
unreasonable = un- + (reason + -able), denationalise = de- + + (national + -ize),
discouragement = (dis- + courage) + -ment.
A careful study of a great many suffixal and prefixal derivatives has revealed an essential
difference between them. In Modern English suffixation is mostly characteristic of noun and
adjective formation, while prefixation is mostly typical of verb formation. The distinction also
rests on the role different types of meaning play in the semantic structure of the suffix and the
prefix.1 The part-of-speech meaning has a much greater significance in suffixes as compared to
prefixes which possess it in a lesser degree. Due to it a prefix may be confined to one part of
speech as, e.g., enslave, encage, unbutton or may function in more than one part of speech as,
e.g., over- in overkind a, to overfeed v, overestimation n; unlike prefixes, suffixes as a rule
function in any o n e part of speech often forming a derived stem of a different part of speech
as compared with that of the base, e.g. careless a — cf. care n; suitable a — cf. suit v, etc.

Furthermore, it is necessary to point out that a suffix closely knit together with a base forms a
fusion retaining less of its independence than a prefix which is as a general rule more
independent semantically, cf. reading — ‘the act of one who reads’; ‘ability to read’; and to re-
read — ‘to read again.'

Semantics of Affixes

The morpheme, and therefore affix, which is a type of morpheme, is generally defined as the
smallest indivisible component of the word possessing a meaning of its own. Meanings of
affixes are specific and considerably differ from those of root morphemes. Affixes have widely
generalised meanings and refer the concept conveyed by the whole word to a certain category,
which is vast and all-embracing. So, the noun-forming suffix -er could be roughly defined as
designating persons from the object of their occupation or labour (painter — the one who
paints) or from their place of origin or abode (southerner — the one living in the South). The
adjective-forming suffix -ful has the meaning of "full of", "characterised by" (beautiful,
careful) whereas -ish may often imply insufficiency of quality (greenish — green, but not quite;
youngish — not quite young but looking it).
Such examples might lead one to the somewhat hasty conclusion that the meaning of a derived
word is always a sum of the meanings of its morphemes: un/eat/able = "not fit to eat" where not
stands for un- and fit for -able.
There are numerous derived words whose meanings can really be easily deduced from the
meanings of their constituent parts. Yet, such cases represent only the first and simplest stage of
semantic readjustment within derived words. The constituent morphemes within derivatives do
not always preserve their current meanings and are open to subtle and complicated semantic
Let us take at random some of the adjectives formed with the same productive suffix -y, and
try to deduce the meaning of the suffix from their dictionary definitions:
brainy (inform.) — intelligent, intellectual, i. e. characterised by brains
catty — quietly or slyly malicious, spiteful, i. e. characterised by features ascribed to a cat
chatty — given to chat, inclined to chat
dressy (inform.) — showy in dress, i. e. inclined to dress well or to be overdressed
fishy (e. g. in a fishy story, inform.) — improbable, hard to believe (like stories told by
foxy — foxlike, cunning or crafty, i. e. characterised by features ascribed to a fox
stagy — theatrical, unnatural, i. e. inclined to affectation, to unnatural theatrical manners
touchy — apt to take offence on slight provocation, i. e. resenting a touch or contact (not at
all inclined to be touched).
The Random-House Dictionary defines the meaning of the -y suffix as "characterised by or
inclined to the substance or action of the root to which the affix is at tached". Yet, even the few
given examples show that, on the one hand, there are cases, like touchy or fishy that are not
covered by the definition. On the other hand, even those cases that are roughly covered, show a
wide variety of subtle shades of meaning. It is not only the suffix that adds its own meaning to
the meaning of the root, but the suffix is, in its turn, affected by the root and undergoes certain
semantic changes, so that the mutual influence of root and affix creates a wide range of subtle
But is the suffix -y probably exceptional in this respect? It is sufficient to examine further
examples to see that other affixes also offer an interesting variety of semantic shades. Compare,
for instance, the meanings of adjective-forming suffixes in each of these groups of adjectives.

1. eatable (fit or good to eat) lovable (worthy of loving) questionable (open to

doubt, to question) imaginable (capable of being imagined)
2. lovely (charming, beautiful, i. e. inspiring love) lonely (solitary, without company; lone;
the meaning of the suffix does not seem to add any thing to that of the root)
friendly (characteristic of or befitting a friend) heavenly (resembling or befitting heaven;
beautiful, splendid)
3. childish (resembling or befitting a child)
tallish (rather tall, but not quite, i. e. approaching the quality of big size)
girlish (like a girl, but, often, in a bad imitation of one)
bookish (1) given or devoted to reading or study; (2) more acquainted with books than
with real life, i. e. possessing the quality of bookish learning)

The semantic distinctions of words produced from the same root by means of different
affixes are also of considerable interest, both for language studies and research work. Compare:
womanly — womanish, flowery — flowered — flowering, starry — starred, reddened —
reddish, shortened — shortish.
The semantic difference between the members of these groups is very obvious: the meanings
of the suffixes are so distinct that they colour the whole words.
Womanly is used in a complimentary manner about girls and women, whereas womanish is
used to indicate an effeminate man and certainly implies criticism.

Flowery is applied to speech or a style (cf. with the R. цветистый), flowered means
"decorated with a pattern of flowers" (e. g. flowered silk or chintz, cf. with the R. цветастый)
and flowering is the same as blossoming (e. g. flowering bushes or shrubs, cf. with the R.
Starry means "resembling stars" (e. g. starry eyes) and starred — "covered or decorated with
stars" (e. g. starred skies).
Reddened and shortened both imply the result of an action or process, as in the eyes
reddened with weeping or a shortened version of a story (i. e. a story that has been abridged)
whereas shortish and reddish point to insufficiency of quality: reddish is not exactly red, but
tinged with red, and a shortish man is probably a little taller than a man described as short.



As it is already mentioned above, language is never stable: sounds, constructions, grammatical

elements, word-forms and word-meanings are all exposed to alteration. Derivational affixes are
no exception in this respect, they also undergo semantic change. Consequently many commonly
used derivational affixes are polysemantic in Modern English. The following two may well
serve as illustrations. The noun-suffix -er is used to coin words denoting 1) persons following
some special trade or profession, e.g. baker, driver, hunter, etc.; 2) persons doing a certain
action at the moment in question, e.g. packer, chooser, giver, etc.; 3) a device, tool, implement,
e.g. blotter, atomiser, boiler, eraser, transmitter, trailer, etc.
The adjective-suffix -y also has several meanings, such as 1) composed of, full of, e.g. bony,
stony; 2) characterised by, e.g. rainy, cloudy; 3) having the character of, resembling what the
base denotes, e.g. inky, bushy.
Another example of polysemy involves the suffix –ist, which has a very general meaning-
“one who is or does something”, but there are three related clusters: 1) one who performs the
action involving something, e.g. violinist, harpist; 2) one who holds an ideology, e.g. socialist,
capitalist; 3) one who is prejudiced against some group, e.g. racist. This last sense is found in
neologisms like ageist and classist, “one who discriminates against people because of their age
or class” respectively, and specialist “one who unjustifiably discriminates in fvor of humans
over other animals”.

The various changes that the English language has undergone in the course of time have led
to chance coincidence in form of two or more derivational affixes. As a consequence, and this
is characteristic of Modern English, many homonymic derivational affixes can be found among
those forming both different parts of speech and different semantic groupings within the same
part of speech. For instance, the adverb-suffix -ly added to adjectival bases is homonymous to
the adjective-suffix -ly affixed to noun-bases, cf. quickly, slowly and lovely, friendly; the
verb-suffix -en attached to noun- and adjectival bases is homonymous to the adjective-suffix
-en tacked on to noun-bases, cf. to strengthen, to soften and wooden, golden; the verb-prefix
-un1 added to noun- and verb-bases is homonymous to the adjective-prefix -un2 affixed to
adjectival bases, cf. to unbind, to unshoe and unfair, untrue, etc.
On the other hand, there are two homonymous adjective-suffixes -ish1 and -ish2 occurring in
words like bluish, greenish, and girlish, boyish. In some books on English Lexicology the
suffix -ish in these two groups of words is regarded as one suffix having two different
meanings. If We probe deeper into the matter, however, we shall inevitably arrive at the
conclusion that we are dealing with two different homonymous suffixes: one in bluish, the
other in girlish. The reasons are as follows: the suffix -ish, in bluish, reddish, etc. only
modifies the lexical meaning of the adjective-base it is affixed to without changing the part of
speech. The suffix -ish2 in bookish, girlish, womanish, etc. is added to a noun-base to form an
adjective. Besides, the suffixes -ish1 and -ish2 differ considerably in the denotational meaning
so that no semantic connection may be traced between them: the suffix -ish1 means 'somewhat
like' corresponding to the Russian suffix -оват- in such adjectives as голубоватый,
красноватый, etc.; the suffix -ish2 means 'of the nature of, resembling', often derogatory in
force, e. g. childish — ребяческий, несерьезный (cf. childlike — детский, простой,
невинный; hoggish — свинский, жадный, etc.).
In the course of its long history the English language has adopted a great many words from
foreign languages all over the world. One of the consequences of extensive borrowing was the
appearance of numerous derivational affixes in the English language. Under certain
circumstances some of them came to overlap semantically to a certain extent both with one
another and with the native affixes. For instance, the suffix -er of native origin denoting the
agent is synonymous to the suffix -ist of Greek origin which came into the English language
through Latin in the 16th century. Both suffixes occur in nouns denoting the agent, e.g. teacher,
driller; journalist, botanist, economist, etc. Being synonymous these suffixes naturally differ
from each other in some respects. Unlike the suffix -er, the suffix -ist is:
1) mostly combined with noun-bases, e.g. violinist, receptionist, etc.;
2) as a rule, added to bases of non-Germanic origin and very seldom to bases of Germanic

origin, e.g. walkist, rightist;
3) used to form nouns denoting those who adhere to a doctrine or system, a political party, an
ideology or the like, e.g. communist, Leninist, Marxist, chartist, Darwinist, etc. Words in -ist
denoting 'the upholder of a principle' are usually matched by an abstract noun in -ism denoting
'the respective theory' (e.g. Communism, Socialism, etc.).
Sometimes synonymous suffixes differ in emotive charge. For instance, the suffix -eer also
denoting the agent is characterised, in particular, by its derogative force, e.g. sonneteer —
стихоплет, profiteer — спекулянт, etc.
There is also a considerable number of synonymous prefixes in the English language. Recent
research has revealed certain rules concerning correlation between words w i t h synonymous
prefixes of native and foreign origin. It appears, for instance, that in prefixal-suffixal derivatives
the general tendency is to use a prefix of Romanic origin if the suffix is also of Romanic origin
and a native prefix in the case of a native suffix, cf. unrecognised — irrecognisable; unlimited
— illimitable; unformed — informal; undecided — indecisive, etc. Though adequately
reflecting the general tendency observed in similar cases this rule has many exceptions. The
basic exception is the suffix -able which may often occur together with the native prefix un-,
e.g. unbearable, unfavourable, unreasonable, etc. In fact, the pattern un- +(v + -able) -> A is
wide-spread and productive in Modern English.


Affixation is the formation of words with the help of derivational affixes. Affixation is
subdivided into prefixation and suffixation. Ex. if a prefix «dis» is added to the stem «like»
(dislike) or suffix «ful» to «law» (lawful) we say a word is built by an affixation. Derivational
morphemes added before the stem of a word are called prefixes (Ex. un+ like) and the
derivational morphemes added after the stem of the word are called suffixes (hand+ ful).
Prefixes modify the lexical meaning of the stem meaning i. e. the prefixed derivative mostly
belongs to the same part of speech. Ex. like (v.) – dislike (v.).kind (adj.) – unkind (adj.) but
suffixes transfer words to a different part of speech, ex. teach (v.) – teacher (n.). But new
investigations into the problem of prefixation in English showed interesting results. It appears
that the traditional opinion, current among linguists that prefixes modify only the lexical
meaning of words without changing the part of speech is not quite correct. In English there are
about 25 prefixes which can transfer words to a different part of speech. Ex. – head (n) – behead
(v), bus(n) – debus(v), brown (adj) – embrown(u), title(n) – entitle(v), large (adj). – enlarge (v),

camp(n). – encamp(u), war(n). – prewar (adj). If it is so we can say that there is no functional
difference between suffixes and prefixes. Besides there are linguists1 who treat prefixes as a part
of word-composition. They think that a prefix has.he same function as the first component of a
compound word. Other linguists2 consider prefixes as derivational affixes which differ
essentially from root–morphemes and stems. From the point of view of their origin affixes may
be native and borrowed. The suffixes-ness, – ish, – dom, – ful, – less, – ship and prefixes be-,
mis-, un-, fore-, etc are of native origin. But the affixes – able, – ment, – ation, – ism, – ist, re-,
anti-, dis-, etc are of borrowed origin. They came from the Greek, Latin and French languages.
Many of the suffixes and prefixes of native origin were independent words. In the course of
time they have lost their independence and turned into derivational affixes. Ex. – dom, –
hood. /O.E. had – state, rank, – dom (dom condemn, – ship has developed from noun «scipe»
(meaning: state); the adjective forming suffix «-ly» has developed from the noun «lic» (body,
shape). The prefixes out-, under-, over etc also have developed out of independent words.
Another problem of the study of affixes is homonymic affixes. Homonymic affixes are
affixes which have the same sound form, spelling but different meanings and they are added to
different parts of speech.
Ex. ful (1) forms adjectives from a noun: love (v) – loveful (adj/, man (n), – manful
– ful (2) forms adjective from a verb: forget (v.) – forgetful, (adj) thank (v.) – thankful
– ly(l) added to an adjective stem is homonymous to the adjective forming suffix – ly(2)
which is added to a noun stem. Ex. quickly, slowly, and lovely, friendly.
The verb suffix-en (1) added to a noun and adjective stem is homonymous to the
adjective forming suffix – en (2) which is added to a noun stem. Ex. to strengthen, to soften, and
wooden, golden.
The prefix un – (l) added to a noun and a verb stem is homonymous to the prefix un –
(2) which is added to an adj¬ective stem. Ex. unshoe, unbind, unfair, untrue.
In the course of the history of English as a result of borrowings there appeared many
synonymous affixes in the language. Ex. the suffixes – er, – or, – ist, – ent, – ant, – eer, – ian, –
man, – ee, – ess form synonymous affixes denoting the meaning «agent». Having the meaning
of negation the prefixes un-, in-, non-, dis-, rnis – form synonymic group of prefixes. It is
interesting to point out that the synonymous affixes help us to reveal different lexico–semantic
groupings of words. Ex. the words formed by the suffixes – man, – er, – or, – ian, – ee, – eer, –
ent, ant etc. belong to the lexico-semantic groupings of words denoting «doer of the action».

The affixes may also undergo semantic changes, they may be polysemantic. Ex. the noun
forming suffix «er» has the following meanings:
1) persons following some special trade and profession (driver, teacher, hunter); 2)
persons doing a certain action at the moment in question (packer, chooser, giver); 3) tools
(blotter, atomizer, boiler, transmitter).
The adjective forming suffix «-y» also has several meanings:
1) composed of, full of (bony, stony)
2) characterized by (rainy, cloudy)
3) having the character of resembling what the stem denotes (inky, bushy etc.)


Antrushina G.B., Afanasyeva O.V., Morozova N.N. English lexicology. –М.: «Высшая
Школа». – 1985

Ginsburg R.S. et al. A Course in Modern English Lexicology. M., 1979

Smirnitsky A.I. Homonyms in English M.1977